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Analysis: New money puts Louisiana education groups at odds

5 months 3 weeks 4 hours ago Sunday, February 16 2020 Feb 16, 2020 February 16, 2020 4:15 PM February 16, 2020 in News
Source: Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Digging out of a decade of cuts and stagnant funding, Louisiana’s public schools, colleges and other education programs are vying for the increased cash coming into the state treasury. But with a finite amount of money to pour into spending increases, education leaders end up at odds with each other as they haggle for more money.

The dilemma of an education community forced to scrap over the same dollars is never more clear than in the 2020-21 budget proposal that Gov. John Bel Edwards offered to lawmakers for the financial year that begins July 1.

The Democratic governor recommends spending $131 million more on education next year, split among early learning programs, K-12 public schools and colleges. Edwards didn’t include a teacher pay raise in the $32 billion budget proposal, though he campaigned on the idea, and every increase he proposed falls well short of what education advocates wanted.

Those groups now are angling with lawmakers to seek additional dollars. But if House and Senate members want to scrape together more financing for a favored education program, they may be cannibalizing other education programs — unless state tax collections grow larger than currently expected.

Already, Edwards’ budget proposal uses dollars that haven’t yet been included in state income projections amid a dispute with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans.

In an introductory hearing last week to a newly configured Senate Education Committee, leaders representing education programs from early childhood education through higher education talked of financial needs in their presentations.

Louisiana fell behind its Southern neighbors and the nation across its decade of persistent budget gaps. The state deeply cut its financing to college campuses, ignored early learning programs for children from birth to prekindergarten and stagnated funding for K-12 schools.

Meanwhile, health insurance and retirement costs continued to grow across education programs, eating into the existing dollars the state provided.

“One of the largest disinvestments of higher education in the nation occurred in Louisiana,” Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed told senators.

Edwards proposed $40 million in increased spending on college campuses and programs, with nearly $6 million earmarked to the expected growth in the TOPS free college tuition program.

Reed expressed gratitude for the spending hike proposal, but noted it didn’t include dollars for the faculty pay raises that college systems requested, among other things. System leaders said they are competing against other states for faculty and worry they are falling behind.

“It is imperative that we find a way to reward our faculty,” said Southern University System President Ray Belton.

Pay also is an issue in K-12 education, where teachers are pressing for another round of raises — particularly since Edwards promised in his reelection campaign last year to work to get teacher salaries to the Southern average. The governor and lawmakers this year funded a $1,000 teacher pay hike, but Edwards didn’t propose one in next year’s budget even as teacher salaries remain below the regional average.

The governor’s spending plan would boost the public school financing formula by $65 million, but $26 million of that is required to pay for existing students. The remaining $39 million is unrestricted in how school districts can use the dollars — and Edwards said he’s encouraging them to use some of that money to raise teacher pay on their own.

Schexnayder, the House speaker, said he was “kind of shocked” Edwards didn’t include a teacher raise in the recommendations and expects the House will discuss whether to do so. Cortez, the Senate president, suggested the governor “might have been wise” in giving the decision-making to local school districts about their spending priorities.

But Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, a nonunion teachers group, described teachers as “furious” about the decision.

As he campaigned for a second term, Edwards described his top priority as steering new dollars to early childhood education programs that have waiting lists and that supporters say make children better prepared for school. The governor proposed a new $25 million infusion of cash for that effort, but advocates are searching for ways to add more dollars to that proposal.

The wish lists facing Louisiana’s lawmakers and governor are always far longer than the cash available.

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